China Reacts to Burma’s Nascent Media Reform

By Patrick Boehler 22 August 2012

The end to pre-publication censorship in Burma has generally been welcomed by Chinese journalists, but has also led China’s leading right-wing daily to publish an ambiguous editorial stating that Naypyidaw should not serve as Beijing’s role model.

“China should follow the trend of the times and look at the practical situation of the nation,” read an opinion piece in Tuesday’s the Global Times. “Rather than being perplexed and even letting backwater countries like Myanmar and Vietnam become our idols.”

“As for Myanmar, its burgeoning reforms are still very uncertain, and the effectiveness of various reform measures remains to be verified,” the editorial cautioned. “All of these are experimental, and boldness is actually the most prominent characteristic of Myanmar’s reform.”

The paper’s editorials, while anonymous, are generally understood to be written by its editor-in-chief Hu Xijin. “China has inspired its neighbors through reform and opening, now their reforms can inspire and touch China,” he wrote on his micro-blog on Tuesday.

“If Chinese media opened up, the Global Times would have to close shop,” renowned Beijing-based contemporary Chinese history scholar Lei Yi quipped while commenting on the editorial.

The government mouthpiece People’s Daily was more positive in its report quoting an unnamed Burmese journalist as saying that Monday was a “great day” for the domestic media. The article written by its Bangkok correspondent Sun Guangyong noted that sensitive issues such as the ethnic conflicts are still taboo.

“A wide range of interests—the government, the military, ethnic minorities and the international community—will be affected by media freedom,” Yin Hongwei, a Kunming-based journalist, told The Irrawaddy. In the new environment, “China’s interests are bound to trigger new enmities.”

Yin, who has covered Burmese news from Yunnan Province for many years, said he expected the Burmese media to enter “a period of turmoil” in which the law should eventually delineate the limits of reporting.

Hu Shuli, the editor-in-chief of the business news weekly Caixin, cautioned that the opening of Burmese media freedom is limited. “The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division still continues to exist, and it continues to hold the power to stop publications and revoke publication permits,” Hu wrote on her microblog on Tuesday. She became an icon of challenging censorship in China since founding the investigative business magazine Caijing in 1998.

“The road towards a free press is by no means smooth,” an opinion piece on the Caijing website read on Tuesday. “But, at least, Burma has taken a first step.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists listed Burma as the seventh most censored country in the world in May with China as runner-up, calling the world’s second-largest economy “a model for censorship regimes elsewhere.”

On Tuesday, the Foreign Correspondents’ Clubs in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong issued a rare joint statement urging mainland Chinese authorities to “ensure that journalists are protected from violence and intimidation.”

The Chinese censorship system also shows the perils of more sophisticated forms of restricting the freedom to report sensitive issues, said Ying Zhu, the author of Two Billion Eyes: the Story of China Central Television.

“Besides the potential political consequences of ideologically sensitive reporting,” she told The Irrawaddy, “Chinese journalists are also vulnerable to libel suits, adding another measure of caution to journalists’ self-censorship impulse.”

“I can certainly foresee the sort of intricate dance Burmese journalists must perform as they test their boundaries of what is permissible by the authorities,” said the US-based Chinese media expert.

“‘I am so used to stopping when I still have more to say,’” she recalls a Chinese national television host telling her. “The kind of boundary-testing self-censorship has become the norm among Chinese media professionals as they try to balance the will of the party, the market and their professional instincts,” added Ying.

Shi Yonggang, chief editor of Hong Kong-based Phoenix Weekly, said on his microblog that Burma’s censors realized that a government’s role is to promote the media rather than control it. “This neighbor of ours is moving so fast and they are not waiting for us to catch up.”